OAKLAND – Warriors fans hoping to see expanded minutes and tangible blossoming from the team’s stable of athletic young big men could be in for a bit of disappointment this season. Those young big men could be in for some disappointment, too.
It’s not that they haven’t made progress. It’s just that the odds are pretty dauntingly stacked against the kids. With a six-pack of centers, which doesn’t even include the Draymond Green chaser, finding time for the aspiring hopefuls – namely Damian Jones, Kevon Looney and rookie Jordan Bell — not only will be exceedingly difficult for coach Steve Kerr but probably not very prudent.
You’ve got the veteran returnees — Zaza Pachulia, JaVale McGee and David West — in front of them. That trio combined to average more than 40 minutes a game last season — Pachulia 18.1, West 12.6 and McGee 9.6. Injuries to Pachulia and West opened up a few chances for younger guys, but they were small, isolated windows of opportunity and most of the meaningful ones went to James Michael McAdoo.
Behind the vets are the three big men the Warriors have drafted in each of the last three years — Looney, Jones and now Bell. Looney got in 53 games last year but averaged just 8.4 minutes, much of it in garbage time. Jones played in just 10 games after a shoulder injury delayed the start of his season and spent much of the season getting to know the town of Santa Cruz (where team’s the developmental league team plays) all too well. Bell, meanwhile, as “draft-steal” promising as he may be, is still a second-round draft pick with a whole lot to learn.
Hence, even with McAdoo gone via free agency and Anderson Varejao a distant memory, there are still six who will play almost exclusively in the post. Add in Green, who moves to the center spot when the Warriors go to their small “Death Lineup,” and Kerr will be manipulating a veritable Hydra in the paint. There’s simply not enough time for everyone, and the end of the bench is going to get awfully hard, perhaps for all three youngsters.
It’s the way of the world in pro basketball these days, the coach said.
“You’re now either a big or a wing,” Kerr said. “The four position (power forward) is like a thing of the past. If you’re lucky enough to find a guy like Draymond who basically does everything and can play big or small, handle the ball or play off the ball, great. But those guys are few and far between. So the new four men are the old three men, and the old fours are becoming fives.”
So you have the numbers crunch and experience factors working against the young guys as well as the consolidation of roles. What else? How about the revamped schedule dynamic providing fresh impediments? Playing just four preseason games, Kerr maintained he has to get his primary rotation ready for the regular season that much quicker. That’s more bad news for the up-and-comers looking to impress.
“The young guys aren’t going to play a whole lot in the preseason, that’s just the way it is,” he said flatly. “Normally you take a game or two and you give the the young guys a good look. But with only four games, we’re not going to have that luxury.”
So there’s really only one sure-fire way to win time: Play so well that the staff can’t deny you, a la Green as a young player and to a lesser degree swingman Patrick McCaw last season.
At least one of the young bigs, the 7-foot Jones, understands the uphill challenge and what he has to do.
“I have to force my way in,” said the second-year man from Vanderbilt. “I have to focus on the little things, continue to do everything right. That builds discipline and that’s what I have to show. I know I have to stay focused at all times if I want to achieve my goal.”
Because of his immense potential, Jones is probably safe when the Warriors must decide to extend options for next season, but Looney is a question mark. He has battled hip injuries that have stunted his progress the past two seasons. He has had few moments to shine, although he did step in for Green in an early season game against Minnesota last year and performed well.
As for Bell, Kerr admitted that despite his considerable athletic gifts and unbridled energy, he’s like a deer in the headlights right now.
“Jordan is a typical NBA rookie,” he said. “His head is spinning a little bit … I think he’s going to be very good player in this league, but every rookie goes through a tough transition.”
Concurred Bell, “There’s just a lot of stuff being thrown at me every day. We’re running like 3-4 plays, and I’m trying to remember all that. Then there’s also defensive coverages, making sure I’m talking and bringing energy. So yeah, there is a little head-spinning right now.”
The carrot that will be there all year is Kerr’s open-mindedness about finding spot moments for young players, a trick he learned from his old coach, Phil Jackson. Jackson had a penchant for throwing little-used youngsters into the deep end of the pool at unexpected moments, even during the playoffs, and Kerr has tried to replicate it.
When those players respond, as McCaw did last year, they are rewarded with more time and their minutes gradually increase, depending on the game and the situation. It’s all about the best option to Kerr.
“I don’t tell anybody where they rank on the pecking order or totem pole or whatever you want to call it,” he said. “You’ve just got to play. You never know how this stuff turns out. If the guy’s good enough to play, we’re going to play him.”
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